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Marketing dashboards are all the rage. Perhaps because every other management function has a dashboard, VPs of marketing feel they need to have one, too. Or maybe because dashboards can be a great tool to help you manage your business processes. The answer is yes... to both.

However, if you can accomplish the latter, then you won't be left out, either, and the dashboard will be an investment in business success, not a vanity expense.

Pat LaPointe, author of Marketing by the Dashboard Light, suggests that a marketing dashboard does these five things:

  1. Aligns marketing objectives to the company's financial objectives
  2. Creates organizational alignment within Marketing, and it clarifies the relationship between Marketing and other corporate functions
  3. Establishes a direct link between spending and profits
  4. Creates an organization that makes decisions based on hard facts supplemented by intuition
  5. Creates transparency

With due respect to Pat, that's akin to believing that the right automobile dashboard will allow you to win the Indy 500.

A properly constructed dashboard can help you measure, monitor, manage, and improve your marketing and sales processes, thereby reducing the conflicts between people and functions.

But to believe that the dashboard will do those things all by itself is like believing a teleprompter is all you need to make a good speech.

Although dashboards can be very useful, marketing dashboards have become a hoped-for panacea for many who want to manage their marketing activities more effectively.

However, just like other technology-based tools that have come before it, the dashboard can be a seductive solution that does not work out. And, again, like many of those earlier tools, if you want a dashboard to help you improve marketing performance, you have to know what is driving business performance and then monitor those things.

Too often the frustration is that there is no correlation between the investment in a marketing dashboard and improved marketing results. Frequently, the dashboard becomes an expensive "hood ornament" for a computer desktop.

We know of at least one company that invested more than $250,000 in a marketing dashboard that provided no useful information based on which the VP of marketing could make decisions.

It doesn't have to be that way. A marketing dashboard, like its counterparts in other business functions, can be a useful tool that helps the marketing department perform better.

Laura Patterson, CEO of VisionEdge Marketing, describes a marketing dashboard as a "multilayered graphical tool that brings critical information about the performance of the organization... to facilitate faster and more accurate decision making, alert users to issues or problems, increase visibility into marketing efforts, and improve effectiveness and efficiency."

Although the process of implementing and using a dashboard can result in the five benefits mentioned previously, it is naive to assume that those benefits will automatically come to pass. One needs only to look at every other deployment of technology tools designed to facilitate management processes.

It is entirely possible to deploy useless software-based tools; often that is because the tool's deployment itself is the desired outcome. Instead, the focus should be on the results that the use of the tool could provide—if you were to take the steps required to make the tool useful.

What Makes a Good Marketing Dashboard?

In their article "Dashboards & Marketing: Why, What, How and Which Research Is Needed," Koen Pauwels and colleagues defined a marketing dashboard as "a relatively small collection of interconnected key performance metrics and underlying performance drivers that reflects both short and long-term interests to be viewed in common throughout the organization." (Journal of Service Research, November 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2, pp.175-189. First published online.)

But for what purpose? And anyway, we disagree about the definition.

Quite simply, as stated earlier, an effective marketing dashboard should help you measure, monitor, manage, and improve your marketing and sales processes. As a result, the conflicts between people and functions can be reduced. Effective marketing will accomplish the rest of Pat LaPointe's list, cited earlier.

In other words, the dashboard is a tool to help you manage your marketing process. It is just a tool, and, like any tool. it can be misused or poorly designed. And even the right tool in the wrong hands can be dangerous.

Another critical aspect of a dashboard tool is that it should facilitate faster and better decisions.

The tool should not merely contain pretty lights and a way to understand the data behind the lights; it must be built on a foundation that makes communication about that data easy and timely—so people can make appropriate, correct, and timely decisions.

Who Is the Marketing Dashboard for?

Quite simply, the marketing dashboard is for whoever needs it. The purpose of the dashboard is to improve marketing process performance. It should be considered a decision support system.

People who manage that process need the dashboard to help them know what actions to take and when. People who are concerned about the performance of Marketing may want their own version of the dashboard to look at results.

Such a "results-only dashboard" will be different from the "in-process dashboard," which will also show results. If your dashboard shows you only results, how can you make timely in-process changes to facilitate better results?

Alternatively, some argue, a dashboard is really about communications. Indeed, that is true, but the communications should be occurring as the dashboard is used to improve process performance, not as a scorecard. If you want a scorecard, create one.

Again, using the Indy 500 analogy, the dashboard is used to determine how to improve the car's performance so as to win the race, not to have a discussion of what went wrong after you've lost.

How Do You Get a Good Marketing Dashboard?

A good marketing dashboard can be created only if you first understand the corporate objectives that Marketing has to support, and what outcomes Marketing is expected to produce to support those objectives.

And that is likely to be more than just leads, impressions, or new communications materials.

Furthermore, so that you set the appropriate measurement points to monitor, you must understand the processes you are using to achieve those outcomes. If you get information only on the outputs, you can do little to make corrections quickly enough when activities go awry.

People who believe they know how to create a useful dashboard list some steps to getting one. Those steps include...

  1. Connecting marketing programs to business outcomes
  2. Deciding what to monitor on the dashboard
  3. Making sure you can connect the data chain between marketing activities and business outcomes
  4. Identifying the data sources needed to get the data you are using for your monitoring
  5. Developing an initial dashboard to test

They sound great, but they are fraught with landmines. Building a dashboard can be the impetus for doing steps 1-4. However, it is still easy to skip over steps 1-4 in any meaningful way if the objective is a dashboard.

If you don't believe that's true, look at all the customer relationship management and related tools that have been implemented over the years—and not used... because the tool was allegedly the impetus for understanding and improving the process, but in truth the goal was to deploy the tool.

The bottom line: If you want a useful dashboard, doing the hard work of steps 1-4 is critical, and until you get those right, the dashboard won't help you.

How Do You Pick a Dashboard Tool?

There are lots of dashboard platforms on the market, starting with the inexpensive Excel and going to the very expensive. Deploying a dashboard requires the work described above and a tool that appropriately supports the resulting requirements. (Although this discussion is intended to be objective, we offer our own dashboard platform, so we have some biases.)

Unfortunately, most of the consultants (including us) that provide dashboard-deployment support also offer a software tool to deploy the dashboard that results. If the tool offered is Excel-based, then the dashboard recommended will be of limited capability. On the other hand, if the tool is multilayered, multianalytical, and fully functional, then the dashboard recommended is likely to use most of those features, even if you don't need them.

Unless you pick a consultant that is not "tool driven," we recommend that you understand the capabilities (and usage cost) of the dashboard tool the consultant recommends.

In many cases, the tool is driving the recommendations, not the other way around. A key capability you need to understand is how the dashboard platform will support team communication to facilitate business-process improvement. After all, that is the real purpose of a dashboard.

Final Thoughts

Dashboards can be great tools to help people manage and improve their business process. However, as with any tool, you must learn to use it well.

With a technology-based tool, the secret is to make sure it is accurately monitoring and reporting on useful, actionable information.

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Mitchell Goozé is a principal with Customer Manufacturing Group (www.customermanufacturing.com), a business-process-improvement consulting firm focused on the demand chain. He is also the author of three books on marketing. Contact him at mgooze@customermfg.com or at 408-496-4585.